President Donald Trump confirmed on Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr, a Republican lawyer and former Justice Department official, to replace ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions. What would that mean for cannabis?
Barr has already served once as US attorney general, from 1991 to 1993, during which he earned a reputation as a harsh anti-drug advocate under then-President George H.W. Bush. Bush had made the drug war a centerpiece of his administration, going so far as to call drugs “the greatest domestic threat facing our nation today.” The question now is whether Barr will take a similarly tough approach under Trump, who has said relatively little about legal cannabis during his time in office.
Barry Grissom, former US Attorney for Kansas
Part of what made Jeff Sessions’ tenure as AG so remarkable was the sense that his views on cannabis had been borrowed from a Reagan-era after-school special and preserved even as public opinion steadily shifted over the decades.
In 1986, Sessions joked of the Ku Klux Klan, “I thought those guys were OK until I learned they smoked pot.” Nearly 30 later, he was still whistling the same tune. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” he said at a 2016 Senate hearing.
In other words, Sessions seems to have been almost entirely immune to the massive shift in public opinion that’s taken place since the late 1980s. Barr, meanwhile, may have evolved—though it’s hard to know for sure.
Reason to Worry?
As Kyle Jaeger at Marijuana Moment points out, Barr’s years in the Bush administration could be cause for concern among legalization advocates:
The prospective nominee seems to share a worldview with the late president under whom he served. Bush called for “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” to combat drug use and dramatically increased the federal drug control budget to accomplish that goal. In 1992, Barr sanctioned a report that made the “case for more incarceration” as a means to reduce violent crime.
Barr in the ’90s embraced tough criminal sentences for drug offenses and supported Bush’s call for a $1.5 billion increase in federal police spending— the biggest single increase in the history of drug enforcement. As recently as 2015, he wrote to lawmakers urging them to oppose sentencing reform. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which supports decriminalizing drugs and pursuing policies based on harm reduction, called Barr “a fierce advocate for mass incarceration and punitive drug policies.”
“It’s hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one,” Michael Collins, DPA’s director of national affairs, said in a press release. “William Barr is a disastrous choice.”
Room for Optimism
The steady shift in public opinion around cannabis in the US has been one of the more remarkable social movements in recent decades. According to the Pew Research Center, public support for full legalization has climbed from a low of 12% in 1969 to nearly two-thirds (62%) in 2018. Almost 9 in 10 voters now support medical legalization, a separate poll found.
While Sessions may not have updated his views in decades, Barr very plausibly has.
“Mr. Barr is a very smart man, and I don’t have any doubt that he’s fully apprised of the failures of the drug war,” said Barry Grissom, who served as the US attorney in Kansas from 2010 to 2016. “As to what his leanings might be concerning cannabis, I think it’s difficult to look through a lens that existed in 1991 and 1993 and extrapolate that to this time.”
Grissom, who’s now a senior vice president and corporate counsel for cannabis advisory firm Electrum Partners, has been reading about Barr all day, he said, and “I can’t find anything that makes me believe that he is falling into the category of a true believer. I see him as someone who’s an institutionalist. I don’t think he’s going to relive 1991 to 1993.”
Justin Strekal, political director NORML, said it would be “utterly absurd” for Barr to direct the Justice Department to interfere with adult-use or medical cannabis programs up and running in a majority of US states. He urged Senators to probe Barr’s views on cannabis during the confirmation process.
“Over half of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee represent states that have or are in the process of enacting a legal marijuana marketplace,” he said in a press release. “It is our intention that Mr. Barr be put on the record regarding his current position on cannabis given his record as a proponent of the failed War on Drugs.”
Grissom said that if he had the chance to question Barr during the confirmation process, he’d point to the roughly $1.5 billion in legal cannabis sales in Colorado last year. “What that should tell anyone that’s a prosecutor is that $1.5 billion didn’t go to criminals,” he told Leafly. “My question would be, Do you plan on taking any actions that would roll back what Colorado has accomplished?”
“My follow-up question,” he added, “would be, Are you familiar with the Cole memo, and if you are, would you be willing to reinstate what the Cole memo stands for in light of the efforts that are presently being made in Congress concerning whether or not cannabis is going to remain as a Schedule I drug?”
The Cole memo, a nonbinding Justice Department guidance document issued under the Obama administration, advised federal prosecutors not to interfere with state cannabis systems or businesses that complied with state law. Sessions revoked the Cole memo in January 2018.
“This is just one aspect of the whole push for criminal justice reform,” Grissom said of how Barr ultimately treats cannabis. “I’m optimistic and hopeful that he will adopt a position that is, at least, at a minimum, cannabis-neutral so we can see what’s happening with our new Congress around issues concerning cannabis.”
Until Barr is confirmed, the Justice Department will continue to be led by acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.